Amid economic strife, co-op gains momentum

Whitney Skeeters

Although Daily Groceries is feeling the heat of the financial climate, members of the local food cooperative managed a positive economic report in 2008.

 

Manager Walter Swanson addressed members at the annual meeting held on Tuesday, February 24, at Little Kings Shuffle Club at 6:30 p.m., stating that rather than actually losing money as they had in 2007, the grocery made a profit.

 

The survival of small food co-operatives such as Daily has become increasingly rare. Although co-operatives thrive all over the United States, many have become much larger entities with greater profits.

 

According to a survey done by the National Co-operative Month Planning in 2005, there are approximately 350 retail food and grocery co-operatives in the United States, generating $33 billion in revenue and serving tens of thousands. The largest grocery co-op, Wakefern Food Co-operative located in New Jersey, made $7.1 billion in 2004. The four runners-up made between $1.4 and $5 billion.

 

Swanson said most co-ops tend to be larger. Daily has a difficult time comparing itself to these mega co-ops as it is too small to buy in bulk and receive volume discounts.

 

“You don’t really see small places like this much anymore,” Swanson said.

 

People all over the country have been reluctantly closing down small community co-ops. Durham Food Co-op in Durham, NC, became one such casualty this January. According to an article on www.durham.mync.com, Durham County’s news blog, the decades-old cooperative was forced to sell its building to an acupuncture clinic due to financial difficulty. It now runs as a buying club.

 

Rachel Poretsky has been involved with co-ops her entire life. She was a member at co-ops in Brooklyn and Maryland and worked as a cashier at Daily for six years. She was a board member for two years and said the board would often study other co-ops for tips. She said besides the small size, Daily differs from the other co-ops she has seen in the amount of non-members that shop there. Although members get a discount, everyone in the community is welcome to shop at Daily. Not only does this provide more revenue for the co-op, it reinforces the ideology of supporting the community.

 

“There’s a strong sense of community here,” Poretsky said. “It’s comfortable. If you go into the other co-ops, you don’t always feel that way.”

 

Kate Blane, president of the board of directors at Daily, said she has been in many co-ops that don’t look much different than a corporate grocery store. There are fewer volunteers and more paid employees. The atmosphere is not as intimate as at Daily, where there are only two paid employees and about 100 volunteers.

 

She said frugal spending and the fact that they did not replace the general store manager position are some of the reasons Daily was more profitable in 2008. She also thinks it serves an important niche and is an asset many community members will fight to keep around. As it is a democratically run organization, it is vital that board members determine what the people want and provide it to them. In the past, co-ops were on the cutting edge because they carried organics and local products.

 

“Now those ideals have been taken over by the mainstream grocery stores like Earthfare,” said Blane. “So we have to think, what’s the next cutting edge? The answer is local fair trade – that is what is important to local people.”

 

Board members also have to be sensitive about what items they choose to carry. Many of the larger co-ops now sell meat, alcohol, and tobacco, something she believes would be taboo to Daily customers.

 

“There’s a real debate among members about how pure we should be,” said Blane.

 

Blane, Swanson, and Poretsky agree one of the biggest attractions to Daily is the concentration on local. The last Friday of each month, Daily gives all of its profits from that day to a charity chosen by the members.

 

Members voted on the charities for 2009 at the annual meeting and chose 12 of the 24 on the ballot. Some of the winners include Athens Canine Rescue, Bigger Vision Community Winter Shelter, Food Not Bombs, and Cucuyo, a theatre for teens.

 

Sue Cullen, volunteer at Athens Human Rights Festival, said this was the first year her organization was chosen. The approximately $200 donation will be a great boost to their budget, which is normally $10,000 a year.

 

 “It’s nice when people randomly donate money to us,” Cullen said.

 

Although most of Daily’s donations aren’t comparable to that of Kroger or another large corporation, the percentage of profit given is larger. Daily gives almost all of its profit to local charities, and the ideology behind the co-op keeps many community members involved. Swanson said last year when they did not have the money to give to the charities they normally sponsor, they ran up a credit card debt in order to contribute.

 

 “It’s not about the money,” said Poretsky. “It’s the acknowledgement that there’s a communal relationship between the co-op and the community.”

Blane predicts the passionate community support will keep Daily in Downtown Athens for years to come.

 

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